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A different kind of travelling salesman problem. Using Jobs to be Done (JTBD) theory and practice to understand the value of lunar timeshares.
Last week, I started watching the Apple TV+ series Hello Tomorrow. Set in a retro-futuristic America, it tells the story of charismatic salesman Jack Billings (portrayed by Billy Crudup), who leads a team of fellow sales associates determined to revitalise their customers’ lives by hawking timeshares on the moon.
In this post, I want to examine the opening scene from an innovation and sales perspective. It struck me as a powerful illustration of the importance of understanding customer needs. We’ll talk about Jobs to Be Done, which I’ll introduce briefly in the context of understanding what “job” a lunar timeshare could possibly satisfy. 🚀🌕
Note, this post contains light spoilers for the show Hello Tomorrow!
Your Brighter Tomorrow, Today
Nat’s Diner Bar. Tuesday night under a full moon.
Sal, downing his pint, slammed his glass down on the bar.
“Hit me again, Nat,” he demanded.
A levitating robot clumsily approached Sal from the other side of the bar. Nat’s chest compartment opened, revealing a crystal-clear pint filled with freshly poured lager.
“Hey there, fella. My eyes are up here,” Nat teased.
Sal is shaking all over. Visibly enraged by the inauthentic interaction, Sal pulled himself back from the brink yet again. He shakes his head as Nat served him another perfectly poured pint.
“Bottoms up,” Nat said, pivoting away awkwardly in a jittery, robotic fashion.
As Sal sighed and continues starring into the void, a sharply dressed man in a greyish suit, light blue shirt, and dark navy tie took the seat next to him.
“How’s that soup there, boss?” the man, Jack, asked.
Sal replied absentmindedly, “It’s probably cold,” staring into the distance.
Jack pointed to the oyster crackers and remarked, “Well, at least they’re still shipshape.”
Sal shuddered and scratched his head, clearly uninterested in the food, or Jack for that matter.
Jack’s demeanour, charisma, and choice of words are all part of a well-calculated plan. Sensing an opportunity, Jack meticulously arranged his place settings and went to work.
“So, is the wife dying?” Jack asked.
“Pfft, what?” Sal scowled.
Now I have your attention, Jack thinks.
Jack continued, “Or… or did she pass away already? Is that what you’re over here drinking at?”
“I’m just after some peace and quiet,” Sal muttered.
“Well, that’s good news about the wife. Family. Man’s top treasure,” Jack said, undeterred.
He continues to press, “Your house didn’t burn down, did it?”
“Look, mister, I got enough problems of my own. I don’t need you coming here and making up more for me, okay?” Sal snapped.
Jack leaned in, his eyes gleaming with sudden clarity. “Wait, wait, I got it. It just hit me. You’re a good man. You’ve worked hard your whole life to give your family the life they deserve, and it’s left you drowning in debt, surrounded by the latest, most useless junk. You’ve got an ulcer, haemorrhoids, and heartburn so fierce it’s like you guzzled jet fuel and lit a cigar. Sleeping is torture, but who needs sleep, right? Especially when they gave your job of 30 years to some floating tin can and took your dignity along with it.”
Sal sighed heavily, the weight of his life bearing down on him.
At this moment, Jack had successfully established an empathetic bond with Sal. He successfully managed to understanding and express compassion towards Sal’s struggles, Jack positioned himself as someone Sal could confide in and potentially trust.
Jack continued to qualify and hunt for his prize, “So, it’s no surprise, no shame. You’re sitting here, daydreaming about the getaway of a lifetime, maybe even taking a dive off the nearest bridge.”
After planting a seed in his mind about escaping, Jack pauses his monologue to check in with Sal, peering over cautiously.
“But the fact that you haven’t slugged me yet means you’ve got enough hope left to hear the one word that’ll save your life.”
Sal clicked his tongue, a sardonic smile on his face. “You get hit a lot?”
Jack chuckled, “Well, every time I’m wrong. But it’s been a while.”
Sal’s smile faded, and he sighed. “You left out the part where I have a daughter who doesn’t pick up the phone when I call. You got a magic word that fixes that one?”
There it is. Jack had just found the problem he was looking for—the most painful problem. Jack had now uncovered a profoundly personal and emotional issue for Sal. This information provided the perfect opportunity for Jack to solidify the connection and present his sales pitch as a solution to Sal’s most pressing concern.
It was time for Jack to start his pitch.
Jack held out a small object, a glint of excitement in his eyes. “First, I just want to show you something, okay?”
Sal furrowed his brow. “What’s that?”
“That is from the Sea of Serenity. It’s 243,000 miles above us, on the bright side of the moon. My son picked it out for me. That’s my prized possession.”
Sal sighed, clearly impressed. “Wow.”
Jack grinned. “Ah, well, there you go. You said it yourself.”
“Wow. That’s the one word none of us can live without. And I promise you this, hand on heart, with hundreds of happy folks to vouch: You’ll be saying, ‘Wow, I love living on the moon.’”
Jack smoothly pulls out a brochure:
EVEN YOU CAN LIVE ON THE MOON!
Sal’s face fell. It just sunk in; he’s talking to a travelling salesman. But the sale had already begun well before Jack walked into the diner.
“That’s another thing I can’t afford.”
Jack waved his hand dismissively. “Where’d you see a price tag?”
“I’m not stupid, mister.”
“No, you’re just so beat down that when you see something you like, you think it’s out of reach.”
Nat interrupted in her robotic tone. “Hey there, fella. My eyes are up here.”
Sal glanced at the brochure, trying to regain his composure. “Is this the one here with the pool? Or...”
Jack nodded. “That’s the same model I’m in. I’ll tell you what, it’s big enough that you can invite the mother-in-law and not see her for days.”
Sal chuckled too. “You have that?”
“Yep. Me and my family, right there in the C-Plex.”
Sal seemed to soften. “Wow. Why don’t I, uh, take it home? I’ll give it a think.”
Uh oh, Jack instinctively knew this is a red flag. It was now or never.
It was time to close the deal.
Jack feigned surprise. “Oh, right. The pros and cons.”
“You know who does pros and cons? Hunks of metal like her.” He gestured toward a robot.
Sal chuckled, and Jack continued. “Which is why she’ll never fall in love or drive too fast or have kids or do any of the crazy things that make life worth the price. And it’s why she’s stuck in the same day, every day. While fools like me and you, we get to dream of a better tomorrow.”
Jack paused, noticing Sal’s expression. “Ah, sh*t. You’re smiling.”
Both men chuckled.
Laughter had replaced the tension and despair that once filled the conversation, signalling a newfound sense of camaraderie between the two men.
Sal shook his head in disbelief. “Jesus Christ. This is nuts.”
Jack leaned in, grinning. “How’s it feel to be back among the living? This time, don’t let it slip away.”
Sal smiled, realising how much he missed feeling alive. Jack presented a contract for a lunar timeshare, “Hey, you wake up Tomorrow, you don’t like it, we rip it right up. But, you know what? There is a catch, though.
Jack withdraws the order form back towards himself.
“You’ve got to promise me that you’re gonna call your daughter. And you tell her life is too short, and you love her. And her room is ready whenever she wants to fly up and spend some time with Dad.”
Sal’s lips formed a silent, heartfelt agreement. “Okay.”
We later find out, of course, these condos do not exist. The whole business is a fraud. His story about his family living in the C-Plex? A lie! Jack even has an estranged son he’s never met.
Poor Sal, you might think.
However, in the following episode, Jack receives a short video message from Sal, reunited with his family. Smiling, happy, and filled with hope about his new life. The timeshare solved a deep emotional need and allowed Sal to reconnect with his family and rediscover a sense of purpose—all for zero down, $150 a month. Bargain?
So, why did Sal buy these lunar timeshares?
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There is a Job To Be Done
Let’s dive into some innovation theory with a look at Jobs To Be Done.
What do we mean by innovation theory? A way of reasoning about creating new products or services that help customers achieve their goals and solve their problems. Or simply, a change in behaviour that creates value.
Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) is one such theory, providing an analytical lens for understanding innovation, which I practice in my work helping clients innovate and make progress.
Clayton Christensen lay the groundwork for JTBD in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). He uses the concept of “job” to explain why some products or services succeed while others fail. He argues that customers “hire” products or services to do specific jobs in their lives, and if a new product or service can do that job better, customers will switch to it.
Christensen’s follow up book Competing Against Luck (2016) provides a more complete version of the JTBD framework, and an essential read. I’ll guarantee you won’t look at milkshakes in the same way again. 🥤
By understanding Customer Jobs, businesses can create more effective solutions that better meet customer needs. Focusing on understanding the underlying “Job” customers are trying to achieve is the key to successful innovation, rather than the external problems existing solutions aim to solve.
We’re going to use JTBD to understand why Sal “hired” Jack’s lunar timeshares to solve his most painful problem; mending his relationship with his daughter. Before diving back into the scene, however, we must highlight two different interpretations of JTBD brilliantly described by work of Alan Klement in his book When Coffee and Kale Compete.
The first is Jobs-as-Activities. A customer has a goal in mind and is actively engaged in finding a solution to reach that goal. This way of thinking about Customer Jobs is similar to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) principles and Cognitive Task Analysis. To me, this is a very narrow and functional way of looking at Customer Jobs; I’ve spent years designing websites to creating novel forms of selling event tickets online, focusing on the functional activity of a user wanting to buy tickets for a show.
On the other hand, Jobs-as-Progress focuses on the broader context of the customer’s life and the progress they are trying to make towards achieving their goals. This view of Customer Jobs recognises that customers are not just looking for a tangible solution to a specific task or activity but are seeking to make progress in their lives. The product or service is ultimately a means to be an end. With the ticketing example, customers want to experience a show, not buy tickets.
I believe exploring and solving customer problems with a Jobs-as-Progress lens is the key to disruptive innovation instead of sustaining innovation.
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So, let’s analyse the scene above using the Jobs-as-Progress model from Jack’s perspective:
Jack is focused on the Customer Job that his product gets hired for. Yes, he is aware of the features, the pros and cons of owning a condo outright, but these details are for the motivated buyers, for customers who are actually in market for a condo on the moon.
At the start of the scene, Sal’s emotional struggles are evident before a single word. He is drinking alone. Cleary the food isn’t the problem -- this would not cause someone to be this upset, would it? Jack quickly identifies these signs and builds rapport, demonstrating his understanding and empathy for Sal’s situation. By connecting with Sal personally and emotionally, Jack can uncover his deeper needs and frustrations, such as losing his job, health issues, and most importantly a strained relationship with his daughter.
Jack is focused on the “job” that his product gets hired for, but the features.
By probing Sal with the right questions and focusing entirely on Sal’s problems rather than any facet of the product he is trying to sell, Jack avoids getting physically hit by quickly identifying the primary JTBD: to regain a sense of purpose and connection with his family. This understanding allows Jack to create a rich picture of a better world for Sal, reunited with his family, a world that includes his product, a easy to access getaway on the moon.
Throughout the encounter, Jack employs several techniques to appeal to Sal’s emotions and convince him that the lunar timeshare solves his problems. He shares a (fabricated) personal story about his son, which resonates with Sal’s longing for a better relationship with his daughter.
As the conversation continues, Sal begins to envision a better life on the moon, free from the burdens of his current existence. The timeshare represents a means to escape his problems and start anew, fulfilling his emotional JTBD. Jack uses the power of storytelling, painting a vivid picture of how life on the moon could be, further tapping into Sal’s emotions and desires.
Furthermore, Jack cleverly positions the lunar timeshare as something attainable and within Sal’s reach, contrary to his initial belief that it would be too expensive. By dismissing the idea of a price tag and emphasising the value of the experience, Jack reassures Sal that this opportunity is not just a dream but a viable reality.
Finally, Jack closes the deal by addressing Sal’s most pressing concern: his relationship with his daughter. He asks Sal to promise to call her and tell her that her room is ready whenever she wants to visit. This emotional appeal becomes the deciding factor for Sal, as it directly addresses his primary JTBD, which is to reconnect with his daughter and rebuild their relationship.
Customer Obsession, not Competitor Obsession
There are many ways to centre a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of day one vitality.
When we think about innovation and developing a new product or service, we often fall into the trap of focusing too heavily on the competition and the functionality or logical aspects of their solution to an external problem.
For example, I have a spreadsheet called Competitive Intelligence, analysing hundreds of UK-based digital agencies I’ve spent hours building, drawing information from many data sources, and trying to identify the strengths and weaknesses. It is a necessary exercise from a market research perspective, helps with positioning the agency, and can help provide a rich picture of how things are today, but it gives a restrictive view of what a client needs from a digital agency. It’s not the place to start your innovation journey.
What will give you a real competitive advantage is focusing on your customer’s problems rather than what all the others are doing. This idea is something Jeff Bezos has repeatedly stated over the many years running Amazon; by intensely listening and understanding your customer, you will identify the real competing solutions for problems in your customers’ lives, along with the anxiety, inertia, and forces that push and pull people away and towards your product or service.
Jack knew his competition. He wasn’t another travelling salesperson hawking lunar timeshares. He was competing with Sal to maintain his status quo, anxieties, trauma, and other attainable solutions that could practically resolve the pain or numb it entirely:
Doing Nothing 😶
Sal may consider not making any changes and continue to cope with his current life and its challenges. If Sal chooses to ignore his problems and maintain the status quo, his emotional and financial difficulties may worsen over time, potentially deepening his despair and damaging his relationship with his daughter.
Doing nothing is the obstacle that all innovators must overcome; genuine innovation is to change a customer’s behaviour in a way that creates value.
Competing against ‘doing nothing’ means creating a vision of real progress and taking them on a journey to make a single and straightforward call to action. Jack follows the principles of AIDA in this scene to guide Sal to take action:
Attention: So, is the wife dying?
Interest: Jack discusses the lunar timeshares and presents the brochure, sparking Sal’s curiosity.
Desire: Jack shares his experiences and the potential benefits for Sal and his family.
Action: Jack offers a contract and encourages Sal to reconnect with his daughter.
Seeking Professional Help 🩺
Sal may have been considering professional help through therapy or counselling to help deal with his emotional struggles and improve his relationship with his daughter.
In theory, therapy would be the most logical way to deal with the issue, and if Sal were to post his situation on Reddit, this would probably be the top-voted comment: “Seek professional help”.
Therapy, however, is not a turn-key solution. It takes time, money, and commitment. There is no guarantee of success, either.
Jack offered something more immediate and actionable than seeking professional help by presenting a tangible solution to Sal’s problems.
Pursuing a New Career 🧠
Sal could try to get back on his feet and seek new job opportunities to regain his dignity and financial stability after losing his job to a robot.
Easier said than done. Sal’s skills and abilities might not be a good market fit. And it also means relying on a company or government department to create the job for him.
Jack enticed Sal with the promise of a new life that could provide financial security and personal fulfilment without starting a new career—much less work.
Drinking Alcohol 🍻
Sal may continue to use alcohol to numb his emotional pain, which could lead to addiction, exacerbate his health issues, and further strain his relationship with his daughter.
Jack immediately acknowledged Sal’s alcohol consumption and countered it by offering a more favourable solution in the form of lunar timeshares, focusing on the potential to improve Sal’s life and relationship with his daughter. A lesser of two evils?
You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.
Did Steve Jobs have a strong bias towards JTBD, given his surname, Jobs? I like to think so. He reportedly used elements of the JTBD framework to guide the development of products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. All succeeded by better addressing the jobs customers wanted to do.
Of course, you can look at this scene in many ways. Sal is in a vulnerable state and desperate situation, deeply enumerating his problem, beer after beer.
Jack capitalises on these using nearly every sales technique in the book:
Building rapport 😀
Active listening 👂
Overcoming objections 👨⚖️
Leveraging social proof 🗣️
Jack even offered a trial period.
Was Sal swindled if he ultimately benefited from the purchase?
Was Jack disingenuous? Definitely! I wouldn’t encourage fabricating false narratives for a ‘sale’, especially if you want to build long-term client relationships built on trust.
Ultimately, however, Jack solved Sal’s most painful problem by focusing on him rather than the product he was selling. He created a vision and a world showing Sal making progress, a world where Sal could take one easy action to make this a reality. And he did in some respects.
Now, imagine applying these same techniques to a product that helps people make real progress and is something they want.
Today, think about how your product or service is helping your customer progress towards a better tomorrow and how you’re talking about it. Unlike Jack, are you rushing up to everyone in the bar, leaping straight into a “sales pitch” without hearing a word they’re saying? Or are you too focused on your competition rather than doing everything you can to understand your customer’s JTBD?
Thanks a million,